Deciding to enter a graduate program is a personal commitment in many ways, and an investment of not only money, but also time and effort. There has been a lot of speculation about the value of higher education in general over the last several years and the larger discussion includes graduate programs as well as undergraduate.
The answer to our question requires research on your part – gathering relevant information, analyzing what you've found, and drawing conclusions that can be used to help you make a decision one way or another. Graduate school is not an endeavor to be entered lightly, so take the time to understand the reasons behind your pursuit and what will be involved, before submitting your applications.
Do you need to go to graduate school?
For individuals pursuing specific professions, going to graduate school may be a "must." Your current career goals or career field may actually require a graduate degree to enter or to make you eligible for advancement at some point. Medical and law careers are just two examples requiring advanced degrees for entry. Business and education are examples of fields that usually require graduate work at some point for promotion. If you want to make a career transition, you may also need to complete additional education or training to compete for positions in your new area of career focus.
Do you want to go to graduate school?
It's certainly possible to just have the desire to continue studying through a graduate program. Some students enroll based on this reason alone as a personal interest in a particular academic topic and/or in learning to become a researcher or scholar at a more advanced level. If you want to go to graduate school and have the time and money to do so, then it may be a good decision for you and result in a rewarding experience.
What if you want to get an advanced degree but time and money are issues? This is perhaps a more frequent scenario. The answer to this question becomes a little more vague and is dependant on your particular context in terms of resources and expectations.
- Understand the finances involved. This is not a subject about which you want to be surprised mid-way though your program. There are tools available, like the Kiplinger graduate school calculator, that help you figure out actual costs and potential financial benefits. Other things to consider include whether or not you will be able to work while enrolled, and the availability of scholarships, work-study/assistantships, and other financial aid funding sources. The need for you to know the potential debt you will incur and have to pay back after graduation cannot be understated.
- Factor in other costs. It's not just the money, although the price of graduate education can be quite expensive. As a graduate student, you will also be investing of yourself in terms of time, effort, and sacrifice. Your personal relationships will be affected by your focus on school, and some will suffer as a result. Having a support system in place, of family and friends that understand and encourage your pursuits, will be important to help you manage all of life's requirements in addition to the high demands of a graduate academic program.
- Research the job market. Are there employers actively recruiting people with the graduate degree you are considering? There is a tough balance in a tight job market between being competitive and being perceived as "overqualified." You may or may not be more marketable when you finish a graduate degree. Research your career field with resources like the Occupational Outlook Handbook to find out about projected need and educational requirements. Talk with employers in your field of interest about their perceptions of applicants with graduate degrees.
- Talk with faculty members. Hampshire College is just one institution that provides online guidance for those interested in applying to their school. This advice includes contacting faculty members as "some of the best sources of advice about graduate school programs." Finding a good fit between you and an academic program is critical for both you and the school. Talk with instructors about their fields of research, the courses they teach, and their expectations of the students they advise.
- Talk to graduate students. Or at least read their blogs. Look for social networking sites where students are gathering and discussing their programs. Gradhacker.org is just one example of a blog that promotes articles written by graduate students about their experiences in school. This recent post entitled Taking the Guilt Out of Grad School is particularly relevant. You will quickly find a range of opinions and advice about the culture that is "grad school." What do they like about the experience? What are they complaining about? How do their descriptions match the experience you have in mind?
Are you ready for graduate school?
Graduate school may be the path you need to follow to reach your education and career goals. If you decide to pursue the opportunity, expect some competition. In times of recession, more and more people return to school and training programs. With more applications, programs can become more selective. Review the admissions requirements for things like minimum test scores (e.g., GRE, GMAT, LSAT), minimum GPA from undergraduate studies, and specific majors or prerequisite coursework. Previous work experience may also be required or factor in to an admissions committee's decisions. While graduate school may be a good move for you, the timing may not be right. It may pay off in the long run for you to gain more work experience, for example, before going back to school at the graduate level.
The workload of graduate courses is also something to consider. Graduate level courses are different from those you experienced as an undergraduate student. The expectations of what you need to accomplish, both individually and collaboratively with your classmates, are higher, and the nature of your interactions with faculty and research groups will be more intense. You will also be immersed in the study of a specific discipline, so it's important to make sure that is truly an area of interest for you before getting involved. This climate may or may not be what you are looking for.
Online readiness is another critical consideration if you choose to pursue a graduate degree that is offered online or with significant online components. You will be expected to have not only solid skills in writing and time management, but also with various types of technology.
Know What You Want to Do
The Virginia Tech career center provides sound advice attributed to The Wall Street Journal that addresses potential MBA students, but could apply to other fields as well: "Do not get an MBA if you have no idea what you want to do. Business school is an expensive, anxiety-filled way to figure out a career path." Moving forward with a clear sense of purpose will prevent you from potentially wasting time and money.
If you make the decision to pursue graduate level education, take the time to find a program that is a good fit for you. Researching your options includes careful examination and comparison of the quality of the programs you are considering, as well as pace and duration, faculty specializations and qualifications, strength of alumni networks, availability of support services, and the potential for job and career opportunities after you graduate.
As with many questions related to education and career goals, the answer to our question about grad school is a resounding, "It depends." On the surface this may not sound helpful at all, but it opens the door for you to make a decision that is appropriate for you, taking into consideration your expectations, preferences, and needs. If it were easy to do, everyone would do it. Consider the potential costs to you in terms of time, money, and effort, and have a clear understanding of what you can expect from the process before making the commitment.